Genetically Engineered Golden Rice

       At a time when serious food shortages are emerging in several parts of world, food safety issues may get lesser attention and hence it is all the more important to assert that to protect human health, food safety is of the greatest importance. In addition, as we observe World Food Safety Day on June 7, it is equally important to remind ourselves that while there are several threats to food safety, the most serious one come from the very high-powered, relentless efforts to promote GM crops and foods. For several years these efforts led by some of the most resourceful and powerful multinational companies have been particularly strong in India and have now reached a critical stage.

Recently the Coalition for GM-Free Agriculture in India  expressed serious concern regarding the new regulations being framed and discussed for regulating GM food as these are leaving wide gaps regarding food safety as well as feed safety. There is concern particularly regarding import of processed GM food. Then this coalition released another statement in which it warned against the attempts for gaining backdoor door entry for more GM crops (other than Bt Cotton) by getting approval for the technology of gene editing, attempts which appear to be succeeding.

Dr. Ashwani Mahajan, Co-ordinator of the Swadeshi Jagran Manch, recently circulated a petition stating that the Food Standards and Safety Authority of India appears to be considering paving the way for approval to genetically modified foods and this should be widely resisted. This petition pointed to the worldwide resistance against GM foods and argued that in view of the many scientific facts now known regarding the serious health hazards of GM foods these should never get approval.

A few years back when the strong evidence regarding the serious harms associated with the proposed introduction of  GM brinjal or Bt.brinjal was being considered by the government,  seventeen distinguished scientists from Europe, USA, Canada and New Zealand wrote in a letter to the then Prime Minister of India Dr. Manmohan Singh, “GM transformation can produce novel biochemical processes that are unpredictable and for which there is no natural history to assume are safe.

“The GM transformation process is highly mutagenic leading to disruptions to host plant genetic structure and function, which in turn leads to disturbances in the biochemistry of the plant. This can lead to novel toxin and allergen production as well as reduced/altered nutritional quality.

“It is not a question of if there are disturbances to gene function and biochemistry but to what degree they will be present within any given GM plant. For example, the levels of more than 40 proteins are altered significantly in the commercialised GM MON810 corn compared to equivalent non-GM corn, which included production of a new allergenic protein.

“Numerous animal feeding studies demonstrate negative health impacts of GM feed on kidney, liver, gut, blood cells, blood biochemistry and the immune system.

“Of greatest concern is that studies show negative health effects with GM crops that have already been approved and which have been grown commercially for 10-13 years (at world level). This highlights the inadequacy of the original criteria and set of data on the basis of which marketing approval was and is still being granted.”

In the more specific context of Bt brinjal this letter stated, “Bt toxin is a proven potent immunogen raising justifiable concerns that it can give rise to allergic reactions.

“Animals fed diets containing Bt corn have shown signs of direct toxicity.

“Independent re-evaluation of Monsanto’s own research on their Bt corn crops shows negative health effects even in short-term (90-day) animal feeding studies.

“The Mahyco-Monsanto dossier of the raw experimental data of animal feeding studies with Bt brinjal shows highly statistically significant negative signs of toxicity on the functioning of multiple organ systems such as liver, kidney, blood and pancreas in all animals tested (especially rats, rabbits and goats). It is very important to note that these adverse effects were observed after only at most, a 90-day feeding time, which raises serious concerns about the safety of consuming this product over an entire lifetime. Long-term (at least 2-year) animal feeding studies were not done and are stated as not required by the apex regulator, contrary to the science, which requires these studies to detect chronic slow-onset toxicity and cancer.

“There is therefore, no scientific justification for the safety claim of Bt brinjal by India’s regulators, which are based on an uncritical acceptance of the interpretation of the data submitted by Mahyco-Monsanto. This has been heavily criticised by eminent scientists of international standing.”

Whie rejecting the introduction of Bt. brinjal after widespread consultation the then Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh had presented a wide range of very important evidence against GM food crops and GM foods, obtained among others from eminent experts.

In 2003 the Independent Science Panel, which consists of eminent scientists from many countries covering a wide range of relevant disciplines reviewed the evidence on the hazards of GMOs. This review concluded that many GM crops contain gene products known to be harmful. For example, the Bt proteins that kill pests include potent immunogens and allergens. Food crops are increasingly being engineered to produce pharmaceuticals, drugs and vaccines in the open environment, exposing people to the danger of inappropriate medication and their harmful side effects. Herbicides tolerant crops – accounting for a majority of all GM crops worldwide – are tied to the broad-spectrum herbicide glyphosate and glufosinate ammonium. These have been linked to spontaneous abortions, birth defects and other serious health problems for human beings, animals and soil-organisms. GM varieties are unstable, with the potential to create new viruses and bacteria that cause diseases, and to disrupt gene function in animal and human cells.

Transgenic DNA is known to survive digestion in the gut and to jump into the genome of mammalian cells, raising the possibility for triggering cancer.  The possibility cannot be excluded that feeding GM products such as maize to animals also carries risks, not just for the animals but also for human beings consuming the animal products.

Further this report said—“Evidence suggests that transgenic constructs with the CaMV 35S promoter might be especially unstable and prone to horizontal gene transfer and recombination, with all the attendant hazards: gene mutations due to random insertion, cancer, reactivation of dormant viruses and generation of new viruses. This promoter is present in most GM crops being grown commercially today.”

Several scientists involved in studying the implication and impacts of genetic engineering got together at the International Conference on ‘Redefining of Life Sciences’ organised at Penang, Malaysia, by the Third World Network. They issued the Penang Statement (PS) which stated :

“Some GEOs (Genetically Engineered Organisms) have been made with virus or transposon vectors that have been artificially enhanced to become less species-specific. Since viruses and transposons can cause or induce mutations, there is the concern that enhanced vectors could be carcinogenic to humans, domestic animals and wild animals.

“Persons with allergies may have legitimate concerns that with genetic engineering, once-familiar foods may be made allergenic. Furthermore, they will not be able to protect themselves if the foods are not labelled to state that they have been produced from genetically engineered organisms. Allergenic effects could be carried with the transgene or be stimulated by imbalances in the chemistry of the host plant or organism.

“Another problem is that field workers or neighbours may develop allergies to insecticidal transgenic crops. For example, a spider venom expressed in sugarcane might block a metabolic pathway only in insects and not in humans, but humans can nevertheless develop serious allergies to some venoms.

“With genetic engineering, familiar foods could become metabiotically dangerous or even toxic. Even if the transgene itself is not dangerous or toxic, it could upset complex biochemical network and create new bioactive compounds or change the concentrations of those normally present. In addition, the properties in proteins may change in a new chemical environment because they may fold in new ways.”

Some years back Greenpeace, Germany highlighted the results of a study from the Research Centre for Milk and Foodstuffs in Bavaria which is reported to have been “kept under lock and key for three years.” This study is important as it confirms the possibility of contamination of milk due to GMOs which exists in all countries where cattle-feed GM crops are being grown.

In addition to all this there is the ethical dilemma faced by vegetarians who may find it difficult to select food when animal genes are introduced into plant genes. The choice becomes even more difficult (and not just for vegetarians) when even human genes are introduced into food crops. This dilemma is most difficult to resolve when GM foods are not specifically labelled, and in fact GM food companies try their best to avoid any legal requirement of specific labelling of GM food.

Environmentalist Sailendra Nath Ghosh raised the very valid question whether GMO companies will compensate people for the damage caused to their health. He wrote, “The UK-based science journal Science in Society has reported that globally, cauliflower mosaic virus (CaMv) was the first plant virus found suitable to drive the expression of foreign genes in transgenic plants so much so that it is present in all genetically modified (GM) crops commercially grown today. It has also reported that this virus is hazardous for its relationship to hepatitis-B virus and the even more dreaded HIV. If this CaMv finds its way to the human cell, it multiplies and activates a number of common viruses that cause diseases including cancer. Would the corporate bodies propagating GMO, then, be liable for compensating the victims of such pandemics and mass-scale malignancies caused by deliberately engineered poisoned foods?”Clearly the issues relating to safety of GM foods are very important and these should get adequate attention instead of highly inadequate regulations being pished in a hurry, as appears to be happening just now.

In recent months several groups which have been active on food safety issues have expressed concerns about the serious health hazards involved in the increased possibility of introduction of imported or domestic GM foods in India.

In one such initiative, as many as 162 doctors have endorsed a statement which has been sent to the FSSAI authorities on February 3, 2022 by Dr. Arun Gupta, MD FIAP, Paediatrician, an expert on public health and nutrition.

This statement said that while two GM food crops were stopped for cultivation in India through the presentation of scientific rationale that challenged any regulatory compromises, with citizens and state governments taking a firm stand against GM technology in our food and farming systems, FSSAI has now come up with draft regulations.

Giving its opinion this important says –“It appears that these proposed regulations are actually a way to circumvent the fact that risky GM technology can be brought in only if regulations are compromised, and not by a rigorous biosafety assessment and protection regime (because any rigorous regime will reflect the inherently unsafe nature of this technology). These regulations have nothing about independent, long term, comprehensive, multi-generational biosafety assessment and seem to be ready to accept regulatory approvals for GM foods elsewhere, to allow them in India too. Such an approach obviously puts a question mark on the very purpose of notifying any regulations in the first instance. It is clear that India’s unique food cultures, our consumption and malnutrition situation, our poor state of public health and weak public healthcare systems, and our citizens’ preferences have all been set aside somewhat irresponsibly, as important considerations for framing these regulations.”

Voicing serious health concerns these 162 doctors say—“ It is a matter of additional concern that unknown and possibly toxic effects in undernourished children have been ignored in these draft regulations. State governments and their policy positions on the matter also do not seem to matter, even though Public Health is a state subject. Meanwhile, there is a body of scientific evidence to show the health risks that GM foods present. It appears to be from genes used in this technology and their toxic nature, from the genetic engineering process itself and the unpredictable, unstable changes that happen at the molecular level, from potential horizontal gene transfer and also from the toxic chemicals that usually accompany GM crops (the largest grown GM crops in the world, herbicide tolerant GM crops, have increased use and absorption of deadly herbicides by the crop, while insect resistance crops like Bt crops have toxins newly produced inside the plant even as pesticide usage increases in these crops too).”

Summarizing some findings of published literature this report says—“ it appears like organ damage, reproductive health problems, immunity compromise, effects on growth and development of an organism, allergies and so on can be the adverse health impacts from GM foods. Studies also show altered nutritional composition of foods. In such a context, it is but natural that citizens expect utmost responsibility and commitment from FSSAI to fulfil its primary mandate related to food safety. However, the draft regulations do not reflect this. Further, it is clear that GM foods, especially in the case of imported GM foods, will be in the form of Ultra Processed Foods (UPFs), consumption of which, by their nature of processing, presents several health hazards such as cancers, Type-2 diabetes, Obesity, Cardiac disease, depression, frailty to quote a few . By paving an easy way for GM foods, FSSAI would also be allowing unhealthy UPFs to flood our food chain.”

Drawing attention to some wider issues, this important statement stated that for far too long, the Food Safety Authority has been reluctant to regulate GM foods, for reasons unclear to us, even though it was ready to regulate recommended foods like organic foods, which are highly in demand. FSSAI did not take stringent and deterrent action against sale of GM foods even though they were illegal and unpermitted. Now, it is seeking to formally pave the way for easier entry of all kinds of GM foods.

Finally, taking a clear stand on this important issue, these doctors say—“Through this letter, we want to let you know, as medical professionals, that the draft regulations are unacceptable in terms of their ability to uphold food safety. Today, the reality is that no GM foods have been permitted to be imported into, or sold in India. This de jure regulatory reality should be implemented, with penal action taken against anyone selling GM foods. This is what we seek from FSSAI. It should essentially ensure that GM foods do not enter our food chain, and that its regulatory tools and mechanisms (of sampling, inspection, testing etc.) ensure that no GM foods are sold in India. We therefore request you to withdraw the proposed unacceptable regulations completely, and revise the proposals drastically to ensure that the regulatory regime is mainly to keep GM foods out of the diets of Indians.”

The very clear stand by these doctors is very commendable and they have rendered a great public service and fulfilled their duty as guardians of public health by speaking out so clearly on this urgent issue at the right time. More and more doctors, health and nutrition experts should come forward to support their stand.

Clearly GM foods pose one of the greatest health hazards and unacceptably high environmental hazard and should be resisted and stopped by a very strong nationwide campaign. Before concluding, it would be useful to state what the topmost scientist in this field in India stated just a little before he died, based on his very long experience and intensive study and careful research. The reference here of course is to Prof. Pushpa M. Bhargava, Founder of Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology, who was also appointed by the Supreme Court as an observer in the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee. He stated, “There are over 500 research publications by scientists of indisputable integrity who have no conflict of interest, that establish harmful effects of GM crops on human, animal and plant health and on environment and biodiversity…On the other hand, virtually every paper supporting GM crops is by scientists who have a declared conflict of interest or whose credibility and integrity can be doubted.”

Bharat Dogra is Honorary Convenor, Campaign to Save Earth Now. His recent books include A Day in 2071, Planet in Peril and India’s Quest for Sustainable Farming and Healthy Food.


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